Less holiday camp, more work…

So far this has been more like a holiday camp (albeit a very basic one by today’s consumer standards – cold showers, shared room with no air con, shared meals…..) than work.  We have started at 8.00 each day (half an hour after the Cambodian normal start time), finish for lunch at 12.00, start for the afternoon at 2.00 and then finish at 5.00.   The briefings and exercises have been useful, giving some background to VSO’s impressive work over almost two decades in Cambodia.  The acting Country Director (the Director is abroad for a month taking part in VSO strategic review) is a local man Cheah Vantha, who has been working with VSO for 16 years.  I was impressed by his past work and present vision.  Today we saw a short DVD of the recently completed Inclusive Education project, jointly run by VSO /UNICEF/Japanese Social Devt Fund and one other.  It was very heartening to see some of the improvements being made in remote schools but also interesting to see that so many of the problems are actually very similar to issues in UK.. except that the basic infrastructure is not there.   Vantha himself was a victim of the Khmer Rouge years and has offered to give a small group a personal account of his experiences when his mother and father and many of his family were killed.  My project / work area is just part of a much bigger education plan from VSO which fits in with the national educational plan. But it’s a real privilege to be able just to turn up and listen / take part, without having to organise / be in charge of anything…. It feels very relaxing!

Like so many people before me, I have already fallen in love with the Khmer people, with their gentle polite ways.   VSO is quite a big employer, with 22 full time staff (19 of them Cambodian) in their Phonm Penh HQ and over 120 volunteers in the field – however we believe VSO will itself face a major funding crisis next year, as the Clegg Cameron cuts bite deep into the DfID budget (VSO funding comes from a range of areas, but core funding from DfID makes a major contribution).  It will probably close down its operation in some countries, which I think is fair enough… this is what happened in Malaysia in 1976, in line with the report which I wrote to VSO at the time saying that Malaysia was well on the way to having the capacity to develop itself and that VSO should be concentrating on countries that lacked that capacity.  From what I have seen of the Cambodian operation, it would be a shame if it was reduced / closed down.  Local staff are actively seeking additional funding from other sources as there are significant areas in which they are /can still make a contribution to helping Cambodian people to rebuild their shattered country.

Out of workshop / course time, I have been reading some very interesting material on the difficulties of cross cultural working – how so often,  ‘Western experts’ misinterpret the most basic social signals, leading to confusion all round e.g. workshops (yes, there”s lots of those over here as well) where Cambodian participants nod vigorously – Western ‘expert’ thinks this means that the Cambodian people have understood, agree and therefore hurries on. Cambodian people are nodding to be polite, haven’t picked up the key ideas, and if they have, disagree with them.  Or again:  ‘expert’ invites questions and there are none.  S/he concludes that this is because they have all understood, but the Cambodian people do not want to ask in public a question which shows that they have not fully understood, as this will be an admission of fault which will cause them to lose face in front of their compatriots.   The examples are legion.  There can be so many misunderstandings that are nothing to do with the words.   There are plenty word misunderstandings as well – one excellent pamphlet I was reading last night, jointly written by a Khmer and English person, describes how they jointly agreed that they should not use the word ‘learning’ in their training of teachers, when they were talking about anything other than learning how to do something.  It was usually better for them to talk about ‘wisdom’ – much closer to the Cambodian concept that learning ”theory” without wisdom is good for conferring status (high qualification levels), but not much good for the real world.

Another really good discovery (sent by a Dutch VSO who is on our course) is of a 2009 PhD Thesis by a Dutch volunteer, who spent two years studying the reasons why Western training initiatives to try to help the Cambodian Ministry of  Education to work better have often seemed to fail  – the training seemed to go very well, but the old problems persisted in the organisation.  His work analyses the problems of bureaucracy in a cross – cultural context very well.   I could go on.. but won’t!  However this last point is very relevant for me as I discovered yesterday that I will start work on 27th September, with only two week language course (in a different town) and no accommodation fixed up yet!!   So things are starting to hot up…  I think I will have a chance to look at potential accommodation in Phonm Penh later this week and I have asked a couple of other volunteers to look out for me -see if they know of anyone who is about to leave etc….  It’s quite exciting!!


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